Sometimes customers step into Fiona Bayliss’ Montrose boutique and ask if she’s still alive.
She’s 92, but she won’t bat an eye. “Is there a law against getting old?” she’ll say. If they bring up retirement, she’ll blame her cat, Ragtime.
“I support a cat and my cat likes to eat, so I go to work every day,” she said.
Bayliss has operated “Fiona’s Antiques and Gifts” on North Verdugo Road since 1966 and she has no intention of stopping. She said so on a clear, chilly morning recently, wearing a new fuzzy purple sweater as she spoke with her own brand of humor and charm. She’d pause only to greet customers with hot apple cider and chocolate chip cookies.
In 1961, a friend abandoned a Honolulu Avenue shop and granted the space to Bayliss. If she couldn’t make rent (then $95 per month), Bayliss promised her husband, she’d “come home and quiet down.”
As a side hobby, she refinished furniture. After her first day’s work she nearly sold out of it, telling her husband that night, “I’ll leave the bed and the stove, but we have to take the rest of the furniture out.”
Bayliss moved to her current location five years later. Weeks after the move, her husband went to the hospital feeling ill. The doctors called Bayliss the next morning — he had cancer. He died before Bayliss and their son arrived at the hospital.
“Oh, it broke my heart. I mean, I haven’t gotten over it yet,” she said.
She kept busy attending night school, managing the shop and raising her son in La Crescenta. “The world didn’t stop,” she said. “I just had no idea that you had to reinvent your life.
“Attitude and gratitude are very important in this world,” she said, adding, “I used to say, you might be handed a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it. You’ve got to get up and do something about it.”
What Bayliss did was fill her shop with items that shoppers find irresistible.
You’ll find fragrant, soft and colorful gifts on display: candles, fine quilt work, hand soaps, tea sets, note cards, handmade dolls, garden fixtures.
What is more important, though, is how Bayliss makes her customers feel. When they step inside, they set off a bell, prompting Bayliss to stand and greet them, listening attentively to what they have to say. Inevitably, conversations veer from small talk to the patron’s personal joys and tribulations.
This is how it goes Monday through Saturday when Bayliss opens her Dutch door to all who come to pick up where they left off.
Her postal carrier recently chatted for a good 15 minutes about the race horses he had to give up. (Bayliss had once bet on them.) A woman in her 20s popped in the doorway after he left. “Hi Fiona! You’re never going to believe — my mother’s car — no more. Her engine broke, and she had to turn it over.”
It all suits Bayliss well. “I lead a simple life, but I enjoy what I’m doing,” she said.
“I wish I had half of her graciousness,” said Maureen Palacios, who operates Montrose’s Once Upon A Time bookstore, where Bayliss participates in the mystery book club.
Each year, when retailers flock to L.A. Mart for merchandise, Palacios witnesses Bayliss’ popularity.
“I can assure you, she is a legend down there. People come out of the showrooms to see Fiona.” She added, “I just hope she would stay on for another hundred years.”